Simple Gifts

I linked to this essay about George Bush in the Atlantic Monthly a few days ago. I was and still am particularly interested in the depiction of Bush’s narrowness that Richard Brookhiser gives.

“Practically,” Brookhiser writes, “Bush’s faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey.” While this clear-cut belief structure enables him to make split-second decisions and take action with principled confidence, it also means that he is limited by “strictly defined mental horizons.”…”Bush may be a free-range animal, but he has a habitat, in which he stays. If he needs to know some facts that his advisers don’t know, he can discover them. But if he needs to think some thoughts that they can’t, he may have a hard time doing it.”

But Brookhiser claims that Bush is a ‘reasonably intelligent man’ despite all this. But is that right? Surely someone who cannot even recognize ambiguity, who stays permanently in a mental habitat, who has a hard time thinking unfamiliar thoughts…Surely that is a pretty good working definition of stupidity? Because it’s wrong, it’s obtuse, it’s unobservant and myopic and unhelpful, to oversimplify things. Isn’t it? Doesn’t that stance indicate a fundamental and damaging mismatch between a person’s ideas about the world and how the world in fact is? How can someone who doesn’t notice something so blindingly obvious – that the world is a complicated, multifarious, difficult, patchwork place, not a simple single easy one – be considered ‘reasonably intelligent’? The world is not a simple, easily grasped, easily managed place, is it. It’s vast, complicated, confusing, contradictory, unpredictable, dangerous. Simple solutions obstinately adhered to no matter what happens or what new research shows or what new evidence reveals is not only a mistake, something that gets a tick in the margin, it’s likely to be the wrong bad harmful destructive thing to do. Which is not to say that leaders should go on pondering forever and never do anything, it’s simply to say they should have the kinds of minds that are aware of a range of possibilities from the beginning.

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